Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
Stanley Kubrick never made a western, but if he had, it’s likely that Sergio Leone’s unique, difficult, beautiful Once Upon a Time in the West approximates the speculative result. Constantly intriguing and seldom explicit, it weaves a traditional enough story of murder and mayhem in with a sense of idyllic isolation and sweeping, revolutionary change. It captures not muscular heroism but the smaller tragedy of how innocence, the day-to-day innocence of regular people, is so readily disrupted by unchecked masculinity (Kubrick’s favorite subject), indeed by the appetite for violence. In some ways, what makes the movie cinematic is that it pits the realistic dirt and uneventful peace of normality with the ruthless antagonism and bloodshed of movie-world, and suggests just how destructive the impulses often filmed by great directors really are. It’s not so direct a critique and analysis of the spectactor as Rear Window or A Clockwork Orange — but it so constantly resists taking the easy and audience-pleasuring steps that were heretofore Leone’s specialty that there’s no denying it is trying very passionately to say something.
It’s hard to imagine anyone with any sort of taste for rip-roaring entertainment being alienated by Leone’s Dollars trilogy, the three Spaghetti westerns he made prior to this one. Those are action-packed and merciless shots of pleasure with a great hero (Clint Eastwood) at their center. Once Upon, as often as it’s lumped in with those movies, couldn’t really be more different: it’s methodical, at times painfully slow, and driven on a sense of the real and somewhat terrifying casualness of its violence, against the backdrop of an eerie calm that verges on lazy boredom. You can see how it would annoy a viewer not primed for it; moreover, you can see that it keeps holding back from going either into thrill-ride mode (except that spectacular confrontation aboard the train, the climax revealing Harmonica’s “origin” of sorts, and a handful of other points) or from outright stating its themes, far more sophisticated than those of Leone’s earlier works.
Leone is one of the most distinctive directors ever to live — though he displays some influence from Akira Kurosawa, John Ford (both known for their calm but compassionate observance of inhumanity) and Nicholas Ray, his romantically charged camera and sense of scope casts him in a class apart from other filmmakers who operated on such large stages, particularly David Lean. Leone’s observances are always on strangeness, his heroes outcasts against a landscape of progress or cruelty or both, and he (in sharp contrast to Lean) places emphasis upon faces above all, faces betraying secrets and telling his stories. Rhythm is everything here, well matched with the crawling pans across trading posts and vast expanses — Once Upon is nearly a silent film, just one broken up by bursts of horrific violence. Much as the realities of war and of moviemaking are those of waiting as much as killing or dying, Leone’s vision of the west is revealed to be stark and troubling when unfettered by popcorn.
That doesn’t mean the film isn’t literary — the three-way conflict of ruthless contract killer Frank (Henry Fonda), charmingly sinister antihero Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and the mysterious, steely-eyed Harmonica (Charles Bronson — what a cast) is more complex than what most filmmakers and writers can fit into half a dozen movies, and this says nothing of the most important character in the picture, Claudia Cardinale’s suddenly widowed landowner Jill McBain — a former sex worker, familiar with the follies of men, and potential owner of the new town of Sweetwater, over which this intricate narrative ebbs and flows. Due to convoluted philandering and auctioneering, Jill must have this town built before the railroad reaches it and requires its rich and rare supply of water. As in so many epic narratives, from Chinatown to Jean de Florette, all things must hinge on water: the presence or absence of it, the need for it. And in this film, water becomes the crux of several lives that collide and intertwine, and water causes three people to sign their death warrants — this good cause that Harmonica and Cheyenne fight for by aiding Jill spells the end of a world of lawlessness in which they belong, the beginning of a metaphorical peace and empathy forecast by Jill’s husband before he was murdered — and for a fourth person to uncover a viable livelihood.
In other words, the lifeblood of water spells the end of the western itself. There are no more territorial gunfights to win, no more revenge outside the law, although plenty more cruelties that may or may not deserve such vengeance. The civilized world intervenes; Leone does not demonize his men, and even accidentally reveals a bit of the outdated misogynist in himself (though not nearly so egregiously as he would in the future), but this is the last hurrah of an old world, one that simply must die. It’s the same story as Deliverance — there, overgrown boys conquered by a nature and world that has no use or sympathy for them — and, more directly, The Searchers: the world-saving machismo of both the western narrative and of the mid-20th century giving way to the ’70s, failing and dying and riding away like John Wayne at the end of Ford’s film. There is no use in having this old sort of hero live on or try to ingratiate. There’s only the respect of knowing to speed away, to fade into myth.
The story is sprawling and subtle, yet personal, and populated by characters who begin as larger than life figures but are gradually humanized. As so many writers are quick to point out, this is a sharp turnaround from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the entire point of which is that its characters, driven just as much on ideas of cool theatricality, absolutely fail to change. Cheyenne builds more compassion than he’s capable of understanding, Jill overcomes tragedy to rise to the task of a new responsibility and self-possession, ultimately to thrive like few heroines in western films had ever been permitted (though the film is not optimistic about the adversity of womanhood in the time period; she is raped and beaten, like seemingly all of Leone’s female characters, and mansplained to by Cheyenne, which is all simultaneously risible and probably, alas, fairly accurate), and Harmonica finds the somber, devastating reality of years of purpose culminating in merely a split-second of sweet if ill-won revenge.
It’s a movie about movies not merely because it carefully cops so many scenes from other films (brilliant ones like The Searchers, dreadful ones like High Noon alike) that the majority of its audience will remember but also because it operates specifically on their expectations. Blue-eyed, kindly Henry Fonda playing a killing-machine sociopath is effective because he’s Fonda and we are accustomed to trusting him; it’s downright exciting that we here cannot. (The saddened nod that ends his performance is worthy of the Orson Welles moment in The Third Man that it directly quotes.) It’s just as important that we respond as such to Fonda as it is that we are raised on the nonstop action of the traditional western, including the director’s own (especially his prior epic), but here we spend far more time waiting for something to happen, thus teasing us with our eagerness for violence and bloodshed.
There are lofty thoughts from many people about the beauty and oddness and haunting, minimalistic power of Once Upon a Time in the West, and even without a full grasp or embrace of it one can see immediately why it captures so many hearts, from first glorious reveal from the train station roof to the final magic pull away from Jill descending into the crowd of workers, the observation of the barren ground and exuberant future all around. It’s an overwhelming experience, doubly so thanks to the typical grandeur of Ennio Morricone’s music. But we could say a lot of these things for Leone’s whole body of work up to now. Once Upon a Time in the West is his best film because it’s not necessarily immensely pleasurable or pleasant or cathartic — its unresolved feeling makes it a film that sticks harshly with you, an effort of beautiful enigma and distant dreaming. But even that, you could argue, is inherited from Ford, while I’m not aware of any precedent in the genre for what Claudia Cardinale does here — subtle, haunting, powerful, she is the soul of the picture and is a large part of what makes it so deeply serious and beguiling. You could spend all day combing over its nuances, its glories and errors and what they all mean, but my instinct is that every appreciation of this astounding movie must begin and end with her.